ROGUE PLANET: No such thing. / Ron Miller / Stocktrek Images / Getty Images
Other views of Doomsday.
• Armageddon (1998) A Texas-size asteroid heads toward Earth. NASA steps in.
• 2012 (2009) As the Maya calendar expires, a writer (John Cusack) races to safety.
• War of the Worlds (2005) Aliens invade; a divorced father (Tom Cruise) fights back.
• Doomsday Preppers (2012 National Geographic) Ordinary Americans gear up.
• WALL-E (2008) A robot tidies a waste-filled world abandoned by mankind.
• The Terminator (1984) A cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and a human time-travel to save their worlds.
• The Matrix (1999) A computer programmer lives in a real world and a fictional world.
• The Road (2009) A man and his son try to survive a post-apocalyptic world.
• 28 Days Later. (2002) A virus wipes out the U.K. in four weeks — a handful of survivors come together. Will all mankind be lost?
• I Am Legend (2007) A plague morphs humans into monsters. One survivor (Will Smith) searches for a cure.
• Planet of the Apes (1968) Astronauts crash onto an unknown planet, where talking apes enslave humans.
• Independence Day (1996) Aliens invade. Humanity fights back.
Let us count the ways that the world is supposed to come to an end in 2012. There’s the one about the alien planet with a funny name that will sideswipe Earth. The worry about the Earth’s magnetic poles flipping like a pancake and causing earthquakes everywhere. And the fear of colossal physics experiments going wrong, spawning world-munching black holes.
But doomsday hoo-hah doesn’t come any bigger than the “2012” apocalypse, born out of the interpretation of ancient Maya calendars, which led some to believe the world will say adios on or around Dec. 21 this year. (The bright side: No worries about Christmas bills.)
Made famous three years ago by the disaster-thriller movie 2012, starring John Cusack, the warnings revolve around the Maya calendar turning over. A Maya inscription from one small ruin, mistranslated to imply big doings on that date, grew into forecasts of doomsday.
And what does the cool, calm, rational voice of science say about our impending demise?
“Bull. It’s all bull,” says astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, head of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York.
“Crazy. People always worry about the wrong things,” says MIT physicist Max Tegmark, who studies ways the universe could really end — in billions of years.
“The end of the world isn’t something the Maya made prophecies about,” declares Maya expert David Stuart, author of The Order of Days: The Maya World and the Truth About 2012.
Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? So, we challenged these folks to use their fancy scientific evidence to explain away popular doomsday scenarios.
Start with ‘Nibiru.’ This planet supposedly discovered by the ancient Sumerians is on a side-swiping course with Earth, says a Wisconsin woman who famously claims contact with aliens. No, says astrophysicist Tyson: “There’s no planet Nibiru. We would have seen anything the size of a planet headed our way a long time ago.” In fact, he notes that the most recently discovered dwarf planets reside in orbits farther away than Pluto, which is 40 times more distant from the sun than Earth is. Sumerians didn’t even know about Uranus, which astronomers spotted in 1781.
OK, how about a killer asteroid? We mean like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs and threatened Bruce Willis’ acting cred in 1998’s Armageddon. “We will be hit by a catastrophic asteroid at some point. It is not just a question of ‘if,’ but ‘when,’” Tegmark says. But that “when” is sometime in the next 100 million years or so, not this month, he says. “Besides, we can do something about it, since we know about the threat and are watching for it. We’d have years of warning, and we know how we could deflect one.”
Tyson notes that NASA estimates there are 4,700 “potentially hazardous” asteroids at least 330 feet wide within Earth’s 5-million-mile neighborhood. “But those are mostly ones that threaten a city if they landed nearby, not the whole planet,” Tyson says. “They whiz past us all the time.”
What about a comet? Russian astronomers detected a comet in September that may become as bright as the full moon. But that won’t happen until 2013. And the closest it comes to Earth will be 37 million miles. At worst, it might provide a nice light show.
Folks have worried about comets at least since 1910, when the Halley’s comet scare sent people in Chicago and New York into basements out of poison-gas fears, and in Rome, Pope Pius X “denounced the hoarding of oxygen cylinders,” according to Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior.
And if the poles flip? Throughout Earth’s history, the magnetic poles have reversed every 400,000 years or so; this happens because of changes in the planet’s iron core that reverse its magnetic poles. But it takes many centuries to completely shift North and South, according to NASA, and we don’t see any connection in the geologic record to extinction events from such shifts, Tyson says. “Besides, we don’t even use compasses to navigate anymore. We use global positioning satellites.”
Isn’t the sun entering a sort of frenzy? Every 11 years or so, the sun does reach the peak “solar max” of its regular cycle of sunspot and solar storm activity. This time around, solar max comes in 2013 and looks like a relatively mild one, says NASA, which now regularly sends out “space weather” warnings of solar storms, or “burps,” days ahead of time, alongside the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which gives electric utilities and satellite owners time to batten down the hatches. We seem to have survived all solar maxes throughout history without much trouble, Tegmark notes.
Black holes? Some worry that spontaneous black holes will pop up because of a massive European atom smasher running amok, but “nature seems pretty resilient against black holes just popping into existence and eating everything,” Tegmark says. Besides, Europe’s Large Hadron Collider, which smashes atomic particles together in an attempt to determine what’s inside them, has been running for three years now with nary a black hole to be seen, just as physicists calculated before they built the machine.
Speaking of black holes, what about the sun, Earth and moon lining up with the jumbo black hole at the center of the Milky Way on Dec. 21? Spooky stuff.
“You have to ask yourself how often this alignment has occurred in the past without anything happening,” Tyson says. Turns out it happened on some day of the year every year for the past century, he says.
Besides, gravity doesn’t turn off like a light switch depending on planetary alignments. That was demonstrated by a 1970s hoax based on the book The Jupiter Effect, which foresaw The End coming in 1982 as a result of the planets lining up. Whoops.
Now, what about the Maya? Stuart was part of a Science journal team that in May reported the discovery of a scribe’s hut that contained Maya calendar markings corresponding to dates after the year 3500 — long after our 2012. (“So much for the supposed end of the world,” said archaeologist William Saturno of Boston University, a leader of the expedition.)
The classic Maya civilization of pyramid cities in Central America collapsed around A.D. 850. Its elaborate calendar system starts a new “baktun,” or 394-year century, this month. “For the classic Maya, 2012 would have been a noteworthy date on the calendar but not much more,” Stuart says.
Leaving aside the prophetic powers of rulers who didn’t foresee their own downfall, Stuart casts doubt in his book on the translation of inscriptions at the ruins of Tortuguero, Mexico, that partly inspired the craze. The inscriptions seem to be a ruler’s boast about how long her dynasty would last.
So, what should we worry about for 2012? This year, we’ve already survived a drought that affected 80% of U.S. farmland, blackouts in India that left 620 million people without electricity, and a superstorm named Sandy, which flooded New York City and much of the East Coast, all things nobody predicted.
“What I worry about is people not asking for real evidence when they hear one of these crazy theories,” Tyson says. “That’s the first thing you should do.”
Dan Vergano writes about science for USA TODAY. Dan Vergano writes about science for USA TODAY.